The government proposes a pilot cull of badgers as a means of controlling TB in cattle and wide swathes of the public become engaged in a vigorous debate on the matter. A temporary moratorium on the cull is announced, but the suspicion is that this is a prelude to a rethink. There is general agreement that something must be done; the issue is what and how.
Contrast this with the fact that insecticides used on farm crops kill millions of tons of insects each year, leaving the table bare for insect eating birds and other animals and removing a vital cog in our ecosystem; a system that, ultimately, supports us too, in many more important ways than just giving us pleasant views. Take out a key element – the insects – and the whole system risks collapse. We are already beginning to see a reduction in bumble bee populations and insecticides are implicated in honey bee problems too. These insecticides have been through little or no environmental impact assessment, yet each time a wildlife organization suggests a moratorium to allow a proper assessment, the government prevaricates and the public remain silent.
Setting aside for the moment the question of whether a badger cull is appropriate, the question that comes to my mind is: if so much concern is raised about the proposed local killing of one element of our wildlife, why is the ongoing and widespread killing of another not more closely examined? Is it merely that one animal – the badger – features widely in children’s literature and the other – the insect – does not? I suspect that the difference in response has roots deeper than this simple distinction.
We do not challenge what we do not see. Does the usage of industrial amounts of insecticide on our countryside even register on our consciousness? The saying goes that if you want to hide something, put it in plain sight. When we see a machine that looks like a praying mantis spraying a farm field, do we even think to question what is going on, or do we simply take it for granted that the activity is necessary and proportionate? Do we even wonder what that activity might be?
The target of that spraying, the insects that live in the crop, are themselves largely unseen. Most of us have absolutely no idea of the huge amount of insect life that exists around us or of the equally huge amount removed each year by the use of insecticides. To illustrate the point, consider how often you have to remove squashed insects from your car windscreen in summer by using your screen washers. Before the advent of modern insecticides, if you wanted to see where you were going, the answer was frequently. Today the answer is likely to be rarely and possibly never.
Then there is the element of distraction from what is really going on. Insecticide manufacturers talk endlessly about the ‘protection’ they give to plants against ‘pests’. This neatly diverts our attention from the fact that killing large numbers of insects removes important food sources from other members of the ecosystem. Given a little encouragement, these other creatures, including many of our favourite birds, might themselves control insect numbers, achieving a natural balance.
Finally we have the constantly repeated mantra that we will all starve if farmers worldwide do not use the latest insecticides in vast amounts as a means of squeezing ever more production from their fields. Yet alternatives exist that would increase food availability at far less cost to the environment. Examples include reducing the very significant wastage of food that occurs across the globe due to losses in storage and distribution, and using more grass and less grain to feed animals for meat production.
To return to badgers, the issue of a cull has seen much debate by the two sides over the rights and wrongs of the matter. By contrast, no such debate is seen around the use, or abuse, of insecticides. Why? The answer is simple: money. Money, measured in billions of pounds, that is garnered from the stupendously large worldwide sales of the insecticide industry. A sizeable chunk of this money is then spent on managing the public perception of that same industry to render it invisible. If something that big can be made invisible, and hence unchallenged, what hope a gentle bee or a hungry insect-eating bird? Next time you eat a slice of bread, spare a thought for the millions of creatures that were killed or starved to produce it.
For more reading, see Pan UK.
Gareth, West Oxfordshire, October 2012